24 April 2014

Review: HALLOWE'EN PARTY, Agatha Christie

  • Format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 505 KB
  • Print Length: 244 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0425129632
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece ed edition (October 14, 2010) - first published 1969
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0046RE5GS
Synopsis (Amazon)

A teenage murder witness is drowned in a tub of apples…
At a Hallowe’en party, Joyce – a hostile thirteen-year-old – boasts that she once witnessed a murder. When no-one believes her, she storms off home. But within hours her body is found, still in the house, drowned in an apple-bobbing tub.
That night, Hercule Poirot is called in to find the ‘evil presence’. But first he must establish whether he is looking for a murderer or a double-murderer…

My Take

To be honest, this is one of the Agatha Christie novels I have either read or seen dramatised several times, and so I spent my time looking for things that I might not have seen or appreciated before.

This is, of course, one of the novels where novelist Ariadne Oliver comes to Hercule Poirot with a a murder that happened at a party she was attending. The other collaborator is ex-Superintendent Spence whom Poirot assisted in MRS McGINTY'S DEAD (aka BLOOD WILL TELL). Ariadne Oliver was also involved in that one, published in 1952. Superintendent Spence has retired to the small dormitory suburb that the murder takes place in, so he has access to a lot of "inside" knowledge about the people in the village. The residents appear to be mainly widows and retirees.

Before Ariadne Oliver contacts him Hercule Poirot has been sitting at home feeling a little sorry for himself as he seems to have so much time on his hands, particularly in the evenings. It is three years in fact since his last novel was published. Time is slowing down for Poirot and yet he feels that his brain is still very active.

There will in fact be just 3 more Poirot titles published after this one.
  1. Elephants Can Remember (1972)
  2. Poirot's Early Cases (1974, short stories)
  3. Curtain (written about 1940, published 1975)
The novel begins with a nice catalogue of the events that take place at a Hallowe'en party: looking in a looking-glass to see your true love's face, cutting the Flour Cake, decorating broomsticks, Snapdragon, and bobbing for apples which is where the unlovely and boastful Joyce is drowned in a bucket of water in the library.

Poirot is struck from the first by the prevalence of the motif of apples that always seems to accompany Ariadne Oliver: she is addicted to munching on apples, she is staying at a cottage called Apple Trees, and of course the unfortunate Joyce is drowned while bobbing for apples. Someone remarks that apples are not always as wholesome as they appear, and the village doctor talks about an apple that is rotten at the core.

But Poirot recognises that this is not only a crime, but a tragedy, for what else is the death of a child? Whatever she knew, Joyce did not deserve to die.

Throughout the story there is constant reference to the idea of mentally disturbed people at large in the community. Many of the residents of Woodleigh Common believe that the person who murdered Joyce may be a stranger, a mentally unbalanced outsider who saw an opportunity to commit murder. Almost no-one at the party believed Joyce when she claimed to have seen a murder committed. According to her brother, her teachers and others Joyce apparently had a history of telling lies or tall tales and many could recall a story she told of visiting India, which turned out to actually have originated with an uncle's visit to India. Many had the feeling that Joyce had brought her murder onto herself. The hostess seems put out by the idea that anyone would dare to get themselves murdered at her perfectly organised party.

Trying to assess a familiar novel with new eyes can be a fascinating experience and I found this one particularly rewarding.

I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts.

My rating: 4.5

Read as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge: in which I am attempting to read the Christie novels in their order of publication. Next is PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT. I have 6 novels to go.

23 April 2014

Review: THE FIRE DANCE, Helene Tursten

  • first published 2005
  • #6 in the Irene Huss series
  • translated into English 2014, by Laura A. Wideburg
  • published in 2014 by Soho Press
  • ISBN 978-1-61695-010-1
  • 306 pages
  • source: my local library
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

In this sixth installment in the critically acclaimed Swedish crime series, the murder of a young ballerina named Sophie, apparently an arson victim, sets off shrill alarm bells for Detective Inspector Irene Huss, who remembers the matching details of an unsolved case from fifteen years earlier, when Irene had only just started in the police force. The stepfather of the then eight-year-old Sophie has been murdered in a very similar way, and at the time the girl herself had been under suspicions. The circumstances force Irene and her colleagues to confront an uncomfortable question: can a child be responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an adult? The case awakens vivid memories that take the reader back to Irene's days as a young police officer.

My Take

Rather frustratingly we are once again playing catch-up with quality Danish crime fiction. THE FIRE DANCER was first published in Swedish in 2005, and has only made it into English nearly a decade later.

The case spans Detective Inspector Irene Huss's career with the the Goteborg crime unit. She had been newly appointed when her boss asked her to take over the questioning of eleven year old Sophie Malmborg with regard to a house fire that killed her step-father Magnus Eriksson. Fifteen years later the details of the earlier case come flooding back to Irene when she learns of the death of Sophie also in an arson attack.

What I've enjoyed about this series is Irene's determination to get to the bottom of the cases. She has a very practical attitude to her work. Throughout the books there have been glimpses of her home life, and in the background in THE FIRE DANCE are her twin teenage daughters making their own ways in life, and her husband chef Krister who is suffering from burnout.

A satisfying read.

My rating: 4.5

I've also reviewed
THE GLASS DEVIL
4.4, NIGHT ROUNDS
THE GOLDEN CALF

19 April 2014

Review: THE DISCOURTESY OF DEATH, William Brodrick

  • published in 2013
  • ISBN 9-781408-704738
  • 336 pages
  • #5 in the Father Anselm series
  • Source: my local library
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

An anonymous letter sent to Larkwood's Prior accuses Peter Henderson, an academic celebrity renowned for daring ideas, of a grotesque murder: the calculated killing of Jenny, his disabled partner, believed by everyone to have died peacefully two years previously from a sudden attack of cancer. But for this letter there is no evidence, no suspect and no crime.
Time has moved on.Lives have been rebuilt. Grief and loss are tempered by a comforting thought: a paralysed woman, once an acclaimed dancer, had died quickly and painlessly, spared a drawn out illness; a life marked by agonising misfortune had come to a merciful end.
But now Anselm has been told the truth behind the soothing lie. He must move cautiously to expose the killer and the killing. He must think of young Timothy, Jenny and Peter's son. A boy who is still learning to live without his mother. And so Anselm begins his most delicate investigation yet, unaware that Jenny's adoring father is also thinking of Timothy's future; that this urbane former army officer is haunted by the memory of torture and shoot-to-kill operations in Northern Ireland; that he remains capable of anything, if he thinks it's for the best; that he has set out to execute Peter Henderson. Death, dying and killing, however, were never so complicated.

My Take

An article in a local newspaper about Father Anselm's recent investigations provokes a flurry of appeals for help, among them a letter to the Prior himself asking for an investigation into the death of Jennifer Henderson some two years earlier, supposedly from bowel cancer.The writer of the letter implies that her husband Peter was responsible for her death.

The appeals coincide with the Prior coming to the conclusion that Father Anselm's investigative abilities should be made more widely available to the community. They agree that he will try to discover the truth of Jennifer Henderson's death.

As with the earlier title in the series that I read recently, A WHISPERED NAME, there is nothing simple about this investigation. The novel is not a straight forward "whodunnit", but a complex mix of philosophical issues, particularly those related to assisted suicide, and carefully layering of the details about Jenny's family, tempered by Anselm's own persistence even when those around him want him to stop. This makes for rather slower reading, and I dutifully followed one red herring after another, but again I found it very enjoyable.

My rating: 4.7
See a review on Reactions to Reading
I've also reviewed A WHISPERED NAME(#3 in the series)

14 April 2014

Review: THE INSPECTOR BARLACH MYSTERIES, Friedrich Dürrenmatt

  • consists of two novellas: The Judge and His Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951)
  • this edition published by University of Chicago Press 2006
  • Translated by Joel Agee with foreword by Sven Birketts
  • 209 pages
  • ISBN 9-780226-17440
  • Source: my local library
Synopsis (Amazon)

This volume offers bracing new translations of two precursors to the modern detective novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose genre-bending mysteries recall the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and anticipate the postmodern fictions of Paul Auster and other contemporary neo-noir novelists.

Both mysteries follow Inspector Barlach as he moves through worlds in which the distinction between crime and justice seems to have vanished. In The Judge and His Hangman, Barlach forgoes the arrest of a murderer in order to manipulate him into killing another, more elusive criminal.

And in Suspicion, Barlach pursues a former Nazi doctor by checking into his clinic with the hope of forcing him to reveal himself. The result is two thrillers that bring existential philosophy and the detective genre into dazzling convergence. 

My take

Inspector Barlach is nearing the end of his life, terminally ill with a stomach complaint. In the first novella The Judge and His Hangman a policeman is found murdered. He was last seen, working undercover, at a party being given by a criminal whom Barlach has been trying to convict all of his life. However Barlach is pretty sure that his old enemy is not responsible for the murder and he involves the suspect in the investigation.

In Suspicion Barlach is in hospital awaiting an operation to prolong his life when his doctor recognises a Nazi war criminal in a photo in Life magazine. Barlach decides to put his own life on the line by entering a clinic run by the war criminal. It is a close run thing, but Barlach gets some timely assistance from an unlikely source.

Although these novellas are police procedurals, there's quite a different flavour to them to more modern novels. In the foreword Sven Birketts says Dürrenmatt "comes very close to abandoning the realist conventions of the genre". Again he says Dürrenmatt is "a moralist/philosopher by temperament", and there is certainly a lot more philosophical discussion in both novellas than we would expect to find in a modern police procedural. This does tend to make for slower reading.

My rating: 4.5

See a review on The Game's Afoot.

10 April 2014

Review: A WHISPERED NAME, William Brodrick

  • published in 2008 by Little, Brown
  • ISBN 9-780316-731553
  • 346 pages
  • source: library book
  • #3 in the Father Anselm series
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

'To keep quiet about something so important ...well, it's almost a lie, wouldn't you say?' When Father Anselm meets Kate Seymour in the cemetery at Larkwood, he is dismayed to hear her allegation. Herbert Moore had been one of the founding fathers of the Priory, revered by all who met him, a man who'd shaped Anselm's own vocation.

The idea that someone could look on his grave and speak of a lie is inconceivable. But Anselm soon learns that Herbert did indeed have secrets in his past that he kept hidden all his life.

In 1917, during the terrible slaughter of the Passchendale campaign, a soldier faced a court martial for desertion. Herbert, charged with a responsibility that would change the course of his life, sat upon the panel that judged him. In coming to understand the court martial, Anselm discovers its true significance: a secret victory that transformed the young Captain Moore and shone a light upon the horror of war.

My Take

I decided to read this title because my face-to-face book group have chosen a later one in the Father Anselm series for discussion next month.

Father Anselm realises from his brief discussion with Kate Seymour, a visitor to Herbert Moore's grave, that there are great many things he does not know about Father Moore. Anselm takes his disquiet to the Prior who reveals that before Herbert died he had given the Prior some army tags to be handed on to a Joseph Flanagan. For the last fifteen years of his life Herbert had awaited a visit by Joseph Flanagan but he never came. The Prior hands over to Anselm a box of Herbert's possessions containing among other things an envelope addressed to a Private Harold Shaw. The army tags belong to yet another name.

So at the Prior's request Anselm begins to investigate what Herbert Moore had done during the war, and to see if he can carry out Herbert's final request. Anselm solves one mystery to find that there is yet another. The final mystery is not revealed until the very last pages.

The structure of the story is interesting: the results of Anselm's investigations parallel a "real-time" narration of what happened to Herbert Moore in the first World War, and in particular in an "event" he was involved in during 1917. Not a day goes past for the rest of his life that Herbert does not think about his role in that event.

The novel also covers issues like what happened on the front during the war: the inequity of punishments for desertion for example due to timing, rank, and nationality; the horrific effects of bombardments on both sides; the effects of battlefield cleanup and burial duties on those who remained; the decimation of battalions; the differences in how soldiers and commanding officers were treated, accommodated, and fed; and the reasons why men enlisted.

Fascinating stuff. A reminder that at the end those who fought in the First World War were, first and foremost, people, who sometimes just found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My rating: 4.9

9 April 2014

Review: HUNTING SHADOWS, Charles Todd - audio book

Synopsis (Audible.com)

A dangerous case with ties leading back to the battlefields of World War I dredges up dark memories for Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge in Hunting Shadows, a gripping and atmospheric historical mystery set in 1920s England, from acclaimed New York Times best-selling author Charles Todd.

A society wedding at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire becomes a crime scene when a man is murdered. After another body is found, the baffled local constabulary turns to Scotland Yard. Though the second crime had a witness, her description of the killer is so strange it's unbelievable.

Despite his experience, Inspector Ian Rutledge has few answers of his own. The victims are so different that there is no rhyme or reason to their deaths. Nothing logically seems to connect them - except the killer. As the investigation widens, a clear suspect emerges. But for Rutledge, the facts still don't add up, leaving him to question his own judgment.

In going over the details of the case, Rutledge is reminded of a dark episode he witnessed in the war. While the memory could lead him to the truth, it also raises a prickly dilemma. To stop a murderer, will the ethical detective choose to follow the letter - or the spirit - of the law?

My Take

It is a couple of years since I've caught up with this series, despite the best intentions of reading them all. HUNTING SHADOWS makes me want to read more.

However Ian Rutledge hasn't moved on very far in that time. The setting is 1920, he is still working on demand out of Scotland Yard, and still suffering from post-war stress. World War One is still raw in the memories of rural England, where so many young lads went off to war and either did not return or came back maimed in body and soul.

Rutledge comes from London to the Fens to solve a murder at Ely Cathedral. The expectation both by his boss in London and the local Inspector in charge is that it won't take long. On the face of it there are no connections between the first murder and the second, nor with the shooting that follows. But of course there are connections as Rutledge will eventually ferret out.

The plots in this series are so well constructed, and there is enough of Rutledge's continuing story to maintain the reader's interest too. There is a post-war flavour that comes out well, and some interesting characters and occupations, some of which no longer exist.

My rating: 4.7

I've also reviewed
SEARCH THE DARK
A PALE HORSE
A TEST OF WILLS
4.5, A DUTY TO THE DEAD(A Bess Crawford novel)
4.7, A LONELY DEATH  

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